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We were keen data prep application programmers, but we believed we were useful to the system software experts, assembler programmers and communication geeks because we could perhaps better communicate the needs of customers, QA the patch fixes and advise customers on workarounds.
Everyone was excited by the new B3 release software, with its potential for online applications using the new database functions , in addition to everything we already had for data prep. Before B release, you could write sophisticated applications in 7E and A load, if you squeezed the last drop of functionality from indexed sequential field value tables and used “command sequences” to maintain batches as if they were databases.
It was as application programmers, that Martin and I were called upon to write the user demonstrations for the launch of Viewdata Plus, being held at the Effingham Park Hotel along with the new Writaway handprint recognition tablet. It was some weeks away, and there were parallel streams of work in other areas, not least to advance the host modems from the Tupperware housing that Peter Champion and Jim Bethell had shown us. We decided to write applications to first show Viewdata Plus as a Prestel-like page information system, but then to show it off as an online database terminal working from a Rediffusion telly anywhere with a phone socket and a remote pad. Pre-release software was not an unknown species to us, and we had to muddle through with bugs and early performance problems. At the time, we also did not have functions to store the whole hexadecimal codeset as data, so we had to invent our own escape sequences and interpreter application. But on the bright side, we did have a portacabin at our disposal for our around the clock programming and debugging of dems, warmed by the Ampex disk drives, each the size of an American fridge, as used by the Keycheck support team that shared our humble abode. The page-based dem attempted to show off page and interactive graphics by reproducing the activity of carbon rods regulating the rate of fission in a nuclear power reactor.
The challenge for us was to keep the system software robust and resilient, and to build bigger systems to support larger populations of busy Viewdata tellies. Bigger systems came in the form of ROCC 1850 and then the 2800 series with the C software release, later re-named Workstation Management System[WMS]. These were still the days before distributed databases, and just prior to Winchester technology sealed disk drives.
My first taste of IBM 3270 emulation came at BEREC (British Ever Ready Electrical Company) in Wolverhampton in around 1980. They had bought several R850s to use for data prep as well as replacing expensive IBM 3270 terminals. The 3270 functions needed close support, and Tony James would lug a datascope and listings to sites so Tony could fix 3270 bugs in situ (since we didn’t have our own mainframe at base).
I don’t recall who developed 3270 Passthru but once I saw how it worked and what we could do with it I was its biggest fan and programmed with it into the night. It’s common now to use Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to interface different applications, but in the early 1980s I marvelled at how I could write smart robotic programs to talk to the mainframe as if a user was tapping keys on its own 3270 terminals. 3270 Passthru could extend the scope of mainframe applications through friendly, easy to write ROCC applications whether the user was using a ROCC VDU, a Viewdata TV, or a Writaway pad.
I wrote a development tool and diagnostic program, tested against the RHM mainframe service I could use at Crawley. My program ran on Viewdata or VDUs, and initially was mostt used for demonstrating to utterly surprised prospects how we could manipulate, enhance and extend their stable and complex COBOL applications without changing the mainframe at all. In particular, I recall goggle-eyed Data Processing Managers (DPMs ) at many a demonstration. It also meant I got out of the office a lot more on sales support rather than bug fixing, and ended up giving somewhat over enthusiastic courses on 3270 Passthru at our training school.
Viewdata and Passthru Sales
This was before networked personal computers with spreadsheets could be used to download mainframe data and be accessible to non-technical users.
Other EIS and Viewdata Plus projects were implemented by the Manchester team. The field engineering system at Stelrad in Hull transformed mainframe applications using 3270 Passthru so that heating engineers around the country could see their schedules and order their parts from TVs at home.
© Michael Aldrich 2011